The second program and first full-length one on this year’s Rockport Chamber Music Festival was a recital on June 7th in which violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Anna Polonsky gave us a quite fascinating assortment ranging from Mozart and Brahms to Lutosławski and Saariaho.
It all began with Mozart’s Sonata (no. 26) in B-flat, K. 378, a work that was seminal in establishing the equal cred of the violin with the piano in the sonata genre. This sonata is relatively familiar, and if you want to find a reminder of how it goes, you can check it out here. What interested us were details of the execution and the sound. As we mentioned in our review of the previous night’s performance at the Shalin Liu [here], there can be problems of sound balance in the hall, especially when the shutter to the glass wall on the harbor is open. As on the prior night, the artists seem not to have taken this adequately into account and as a result, at least at the outset, the violin wasn’t speaking as forcefully as it needed to do in contrast to the piano, which boomed mercilessly. What bothered us even more was a decided tendency toward mannerism in Jackiw’s playing. Now, we have been following this young man’s career with great interest since we first heard him solo with Harvard’s Bach Society Orchestra when he was an undergraduate (admittedly, not as long as some: Ben Zander, in attendance on Saturday, crowed that he had introduced Jackiw to London audiences when the violinist was 14). While nothing has been lost of Jackiw’s security and expressive finesse, his stage manner has taken on something of a Warner Brothers cartoon parody of the virtuoso, with ecstatic swoops and tiptoe reaches heavenward. This is regrettable, as is a tendency to over-calculate every phrase so that it always begins softly, swells, and recedes. We have seen a number of younger Russian musicians affecting this posture, and we wish Jackiw wouldn’t go there. If there’s a Russian violinist whose work he should study carefully, it would be David Oistrakh, whose unfussy demeanor focused attention on the music, into which he poured the most sublime expression. Polonsky was a fine companion in this sonata (as indeed in the rest of the program), despite the inadvertent sonic problems. The best work in this sonata was in the finale, in which both players sparkled.
Next was Witold Lutosławski’s Partita dating from 1984, which was ostensibly modeled on Baroque dance suites, but which for us gave hardly any indication of a Bachian cast. It is, however, an exceptionally fine work. Its first movement (of five) alternated frenetic passages with quieter ones, the latter often featuring bent pitches in the violin. Jackiw’s exaggerated dynamic swings were more appropriate in this music, which, despite his introductory remarks, didn’t strike us as particularly dance-like. A striking feature of the Partita is the use of aleatory elements in the brief second and fourth movements, in which the notes for violin and piano were prescribed, but not their coordination with one another. It is perhaps a tribute to the performers that they sounded, indeed, quite coordinated. The central Largo was both intense and lyrical, building in ways that suggest both Bartók and Shostakovich. Jackiw left the audience rapt with his powerful and communicative conveyance of this powerfully expressive music. The finale, like the opening movement, had a driving rhythmic propulsion in its principal ideas, but which had an even greater tendency to slacken the momentum for expressive purposes. This is a terrific piece, and Jackiw and Polonsky put it over with passion, technical brilliance and panache.
After intermission the duo called for the decorative wooden screen to be drawn over the window (no view would be lost after sundown), obviously recognizing that it would improve the sound. The second half opened with a fairly brief work for unaccompanied violin, the Nocturne by Kaija Saariaho, written in 1994 in memory of Lutosławski, who had then recently died. It was made up of shards of music from the violin concerto that Saariaho was then writing, put together in a highly atmospheric and affecting manner, which Jackiw conveyed with straightforward sincerity.
In the closer, the Brahms third sonata, op. 108, the most dramatic and aggressive of the three, the performers took a long-range architectural view: the opening movement, which many players punch out in “dark and stormy” tones, was surprisingly, and even a bit affectedly, reticent and delicate. Their performance of the second movement, an Adagio with one of Brahms’s greatest tunes, would have made Parmigianino and El Greco proud: the playing achingly beautiful but stretched past any recognition of its pulse, just floating in the clouds. That said, we must report that Jackiw did keep his vibrato within reasonable bounds, demonstrating that at least in some key elements of his sound production he retains a high degree of taste and balance. The intermezzo-style scherzo returned to the intense delicacy with which the players rendered the first movement, here with the piano taking a more forward role, yet, with the screen now closed, mercifully not overpowering the violin. The finale, though, was what they had been saving themselves for, and they attacked this complex and virtuoso movement with bravura and gusto. Here we would point out Polonsky’s wonderful phrasing in the chorale-like second subject, which in others’ hands can sound blocky, here preserved both its sonorousness and its momentum.
For an encore Jackiw and Polonsky played the last movement, the gentle but potent Dithyrambe, of Stravinsky’s 1932 Duo Concertante, a stylish way to wind up.